ST. LOUIS — It all started on Sept. 11, 2005.
Pedro Martinez and the New York Mets beat down the Cardinals, 7-2 at Busch Stadium II. Cardinal-to-be Braden Looper got the final outs. Matt Morris opposed Martinez, and the late Chris Duncan pinch-hit.
A rookie named Adam Wainwright made his debut that afternoon, surrendering a three-run home run to Victor Diaz in the ninth inning. Carlos Beltran, who also homered that day, looked on from the dugout. Wainwright and Beltran would meet again a little more than a year later.
2,209.1 innings pitched and 6,628 outs later, Wainwright is still here, fooling hitters and collecting outs. He will return for 2020, signing a one-year contract today.
Few pitchers stay with one team during this modern age of high dollar Major League practice. It just doesn't happen. Clayton Kershaw may stick it out in Los Angeles. If Felix Hernandez calls it quits, he will have spent his entire career in Seattle. It's a rarity.
I'd call Wainwright a rarity.
The terms of the contract haven't been disclosed, but it's safe to say some incentives will be involved. Last season, against all odds, Wainwright turned a base salary of two million into ten million, meeting all the necessary marks in his incentive-laced contract.
No matter what the contract looks like, I love the one-year deal. It allows Wainwright and longtime battery mate Yadier Molina to finish out their careers together if they so choose. Molina has recently stated being open to an extension that carries him past the upcoming 2020 season, but that's not definite yet. Either way, Wainwright will finish his career most likely throwing the same pitches to Molina.
It was the soon-to-be Hall of Fame catcher who started that September afternoon game 14 years ago, but he didn't catch Wainwright's first pitch. That was journeyman catcher, Mike Mahoney. Outside of a few other Mahoney types, it's been #50 and #4 mowing down hitters of all ages, sizes, and abilities.
A year after his debut, Wainwright was the guy who hit the freeze button on Beltran in the NLCS; Molina was the guy who hit the game-winning two run homer and caught that final pitch from Wainwright. They came together again a week or so later when Brandon Inge couldn't catch a Wainwright slider, sealing the Cardinals' tenth World Series title.
No matter what happens in 2020, I hope it's Molina who catches Wainwright's final pitch. That's the way it should be, for pitcher and catcher. Two guys who became legends around the same moment for a team they've spent their entire lives with. Like my colleague Corey Miller wrote last month, it's only fitting they get one last ride.
The ride almost ended in 2018. Wainwright only made eight starts, including a beatdown on Opening Day in St. Louis. He suffered a few key injuries throughout the season, and I am sure a thought or two about quitting ran through his head. Why keep going? Something brought him back. The need to finish in a more resounding fashion, perhaps.
He came back on the incentive-laden contract, telling the media he had found a true form of health over last winter. A few rolled their eyes, and fans followed suit. They had heard it before, but haven't seen results back it up.
Wainwright wasn't lying when he said he was in the best shape of his life though, starting 31 games, produced a fWAR of 2.2, and only getting sharper as the season went along. He outdueled the great Max Scherzer in a key September game, and pitched strongly in the playoffs, with the team failing to give him run support.
Can he keep it going for one more season? Steamers on Fangraphs has him going 9-10 with a 4.69 ERA and a fWAR of 1.5? All things considered, I'd take a bet on that. If you know Steamers, you'll know they always shoot low based on age, injury history, and the tilt of the game. Knowing Wainwright, he'll find a way to be productive.
If not, he's earned the right to go out on his terms, throwing to his catcher and tipping his cap to the grown-ups who first watched him throw a baseball when they were in middle school.
The Cardinals wanted him back, and he accepted the challenge. It's not an easy one. Fooling Major League hitters with supposedly juiced baseballs is as hard as it gets. Baseball all starts with a pitcher, hitter, and catcher. A three-person game. Wainwright is ahead on points right now; he'll win the overall match running away. But how does it end?
No one knows. I do know for another summer wind in St. Louis, an Adam Wainwright pitching school will come blowing in, across the sea of red.
I know he will throw baseballs to Molina, who will be entering his 17th season. I know we'll see Wainwright sprint to the mound, pick up the baseball, mark his spot on the bump, and set himself. He'll bring the glove to his head, peering in over the top strap. The glove will go over his head and back down to his chest, sending a baseball looping through the air. The hitter will dare himself to withhold swinging, knowing he can crush it if he catches it. The bat will move, it will miss, and Wainwright will have gotten the most important part of the game: Strike one.
What started on a September afternoon 14 years ago will try for another visit to fall baseball, another World Series chase.
Let's do this again.
Thanks for reading.